Annalyn’s Corner: Ookami-san and a Favor that’s Impossible to Return

I’ve been meaning to watch Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi (Okami-san and her Seven Companions) for a while. This twelve-episode anime draws heavily on fairy and folk tales, and my love for these classic stories never dies. I finally watched it this past week. It was… decent, once the narrator’s voice stopped annoying me. The title character, Ookami Ryoko, is part of Otagi Bank, a school club that does favors for “clients,” with the expectation that said clients will return the favors when called upon. The characters go on adventures of varying difficulty (the delinquent school in town provides danger), and it’s generally a fun club anime that unapologetically mixes tropes, stereotypes, and well-known tales.

Otagi Bank members help their schoolmates out for a cost, but they have their fair share of trials themselves. The fourth episode, “Ōkami-san and Otsū-senpai’s Favor Repayments,” confronts the idea of favors among friends. One of the secondary characters, Tsurugaya Otsuu, is obsessed with returning favors. When Ryoushi, the main male character, saves her from from getting hit by a stray baseball, she insists on becoming his maid… and I don’t mean just doing a bit of housecleaning, either. After all, Ryoushi saved her. She goes above and beyond, even sleeping in his little one-room apartment so that she will be available to tend to every perceived need. Ryoushi is so uncomfortable with this arrangement, he can’t sleep. Yet she is too worried about returning the favor to realize that he really just wants her to let him sleep in peace.

Otsuu-senpai in episode two. Even when she isn't obsessing about repaying Ryoushi, she dresses as a maid.
Otsuu-senpai in episode two. Even when she isn’t obsessing about repaying Ryoushi, she dresses as a maid.

Otsuu has a tragic back story to go with her obsession: when she was younger, an older brother figure died saving her from being hit by a car. She can never repay him for his sacrifice. Instead, she is determined to repay all other perceived debts in her life. Otsuu overworks herself trying to repay Ryoushi. He goes to the Otagi Bank’s president with the problem. The group of friends comes up with a plan: do so many favors for Otsuu, even she can see that it’s impossible to repay them. The first step of the plan? Dress up as maids and wait on her hand and foot for an entire day. Of course, at the end of the day, she says that she’ll try to repay each of them for what they’ve done. They tell her that it’s impossible, and even if she did manage to repay the favor, they’d do even more for her, so the cycle would never end. They explain that since they are friends, helping each other out is only natural. Otagi Bank might be founded on a system of favor and debt, but the group’s members themselves need no such thing. There are no favors between friends.

This plot idea isn’t new. Many anime, movies, and TV shows include characters who are too proud or insecure to get help from others, or who feel they must repay every nice thing that’s done for them. (Arakawa Under the Bridge comes to mind, though I’ve only seen an episode or two of that.) They don’t know how to accept kindness with no strings attached. After years of watching these characters learn about friendship and kindness, I’ve finally realized how much I have to learn myself. Among my family, I don’t hesitate to ask for anything. But I’m more awkward with friends and classmates: If I accept an offer of food, but never give food in return or offer further friendship, is that rude? If they write me a note on my birthday, or just because they want to encourage me, doesn’t that mean I have to do the same? If I write a kind note or do something else for them, will they see it as more than passing kindness? I really can’t offer much companionship as a friend right now! Will I make them feel obligated? I don’t expect anything back, not even deeper friendship, I just want to do this one thing.

It’s kind of ridiculous. I think everyone likes the idea of people doing kind things for each other with no strings attached, at least theoretically. And among Christians, like my classmates at my Christian university, it should be a given that we demonstrate love for one another without the expectation of anything in return. Conversely, those of us who can’t give more than a “thank you” in return should be able to accept such kindness. After all, through faith, we can all benefit from Jesus’s sacrifice, which we can never repay.

And that is where I find the big parallel between this episode of Ookami-san and Christian life. When Jesus died on the cross, he took our place. Because no human being except Jesus Christ ever lived a perfect life, only he could become the perfect sacrifice. He redeemed us from our sins—meaning he paid our way out of sin and death, so we don’t have to live separated from God and habitually sinning anymore. His death and resurrection means that we can have eternal, abundant life, in relationship with him—not because of anything we do, but only because of what he did. All he asks in return? Our faith in who he is and what he has done for us (Romans 4:1-8, 18-25).

Jesus lived, died, and rose again as a perfect sacrifice because we couldn’t. By definition, it is impossible to repay him. He wasn’t doing us a favor, but giving us a gift. We don’t have to try to earn it or prove our worthiness by doing things for him. If we try, then we miss the point just as much as Otsuu. Instead of trying to do the impossible and repay him, we should just accept his gift, his love, his grace, his friendship, and his authority. We should enjoy him and his gift, and use it, just as he wants us to.

That’s not to say that, once we trust in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, that we should feel free to just go back to sinning. Look at the last sentence in the paragraph above, and where I italicized “use.” Jesus gave us something a whole lot more valuable than a “Get out of Hell Free” card to play at our deathbed. We’re not the same people anymore. It won’t feel right, and it won’t be right to live in a way that goes against God’s commandments. If you don’t strive to obey and understand Jesus better, you’re missing out on how awesome life with him can be. Good works aren’t necessary for salvation, and they’re not expected in repayment, but they are expected as a logical result, with God’s help.  This fact is apparent throughout the New Testament.

If you don’t accept God’s free gift of salvation for what it is, you will be stressed out. On the other hand, speaking from experience, it feels wonderful to rest secure in God’s love and in salvation through Jesus. I don’t mean “rest” as in it’s always easy or I don’t have to work to obey him. It can be hard, and I do have to work. I want to please him and to demonstrate my love for him, as weak as it is compared to his. But I know Jesus did the hardest—the impossible—work for me, and that he continues to work in my life, even though I can never repay him. Accepting that whole-heartedly (hopefully moreso than Otsuu accepts her friends’ kindness at the end of the episode) is a relief and a pleasure.

I know our readers come from all different backgrounds. Many of you aren’t Christians. Many of you are—maybe you’ve known Jesus for years, maybe just for a few days. No matter where you are in your beliefs, I encourage you to stop and think about Jesus’s free gift. If you’re trying to become worthy before surrendering to Christ, please realize that he’ll take you exactly how you are. If you don’t believe me, just look at who Jesus hung out with during his time walking on earth. You can’t become worthy on your own, so trying is fruitless. If you’re already a believer, and you’re still trying to work it off, I encourage you to confront yourself and consider what you believe in your heart about Christ. Do you know the difference between appreciative obedience and trying to earn righteousness? Or is this a subject you need to wrestle through?

I probably opened a can of worms about faith and works, so hopefully I communicated what I believe clearly enough. It’s a topic that’s worth reflecting on. I didn’t expect it to come up after watching a silly anime like Ookami-san, but I’m glad it did; it’s a reminder to pause in my busy day and just thank Jesus for saving me when I could not save myself.

Lex (Annalyn)

10 thoughts on “Annalyn’s Corner: Ookami-san and a Favor that’s Impossible to Return

  1. Well, there is one teensy thing we are required to do and that’s forgive those who trespass against us, just as we have been forgiven. As the parable of the servant and the king who forgave his debt (Mt. 18:23-35) makes very clear, the consequence of not shouldering our part in the economy of forgiveness and the currency of grace will be very severe.

    You mentioned Arakawa Under The Bridge – the protagonist in that had been raised to never accept a debt or help from anyone and if he received it to repay it immediately and precisely, so that when his life is saved by Nino he is bound to repay her with whatever she asks for (because that’s the value he places on his life, of course). Nino says she wants him to come and live with her as her “lover” – in the more restrained Japanese sense of the term that we would call a boyfriend – and hijinks ensue as he adapts to living under the bridge by the river with the cast of misfits and dropouts, including a cross-dressing nun and a very violent little girl who seems to be a hired killer of some kind. And a kappa – or a man dressed as a kappa, anyway. It’s pretty quick-fire humour which was unexpected and it’s refreshingly free of tropes which is a bonus. I recommend that you keep on with it and reserve your judgement.

    1. Thank you commenting, and for bringing up that passage. It’s true that we are required to forgive others. I’d be very careful in speaking of “shouldering our part,” though. I don’t mean to be nit-picky about wording, but since so many people read these comments, I want to make sure we understand each other well. I haven’t been in a position where I had to forgive someone for doing something horrible to me. However, I’ve heard that it can be very difficult, even impossible… except with God’s help. And I know that one of the main reasons I am able to forgive is God’s grace working in my heart, and how he has helped me understand the depth of his grace better and better over the years. So here’s my understanding: forgiving others is neither a prerequisite for salvation through faith by grace, nor a payment to keep ourselves saved, but rather something we are enabled to do because of Christ’s saving work on the cross and his ongoing molding of us into his image. Further, it is only natural that we should forgive as we have been forgiven, especially if we truly believe that we did not deserve to be forgiven, and if we have much understanding of God’s grace, love, and holiness at all. Maybe I’m not saying much that you don’t already know, but again, I want to make sure we are clear.

      On a more light-hearted note, I will follow your recommendation and keep on with Arakawa when I have the time. I was a little distracted when I last tried it, but I did find Kou’s backstory and history toward help very interesting. Reading your description revives my interest, so thank you! 🙂

  2. I’ve read somewhere that this whole idea of having to repay one’s debts to other people is something deeply ingrained into Japanese culture. It’s probably why it comes up so often in anime. I know I’ve seen it come up in various places.

    Great article; now I’m wondering if I should start Ookami-san too… even though I’m behind on anime as it is already.

    1. Thanks, Frank. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Ookami-san with high priority. I enjoyed it well enough, and the more I think about it, the more I like it, but I can’t say I loved it. You might enjoy it even more than I did, though.

  3. Pagans in general seem very concerned with the concept of gratitude and repaying debts. One of the ideas put forward in Plato’s Republic about the nature of justice is that it is simply repaying one’s debts. In Christianity, the concept of forgiveness of sins and the fact that we owe God a debt which we can never repay make us more concerned with mercy than justice–though, it might be argued that the standard of justice is even higher for a Christian since we have Christ for our model.

    But, as a Catholic, I would say that works are necessary for salvation; n.b. not that works earn salvation, but that they are normally necessary for it. Imagine a person who received the gift of Faith and then never practiced obedience to God’s commandments or did anyone a good turn. Such a person would surely be damned even if they believed that God exists and that Christ made reparations for humanity’s sins on the cross! And generally, we find that people who seldom do good works, rarely study pious texts, and fulfill the bare minimum of religious practices often stop believing in God. Not that these works themselves bring about faith, but that they show a soul faithful to the inspirations of grace. Faith without works is dead.

    Of course, as your article points out well, there is no reason why a soul should have anxiety about doing good works. Our daily life offers countless occasions of doing good works, and we need simply remain faithful to the teachings of Christ. Our Lord says, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit…” (John 15:5). All the same, it is not in our good works that we trust, but in the mercy of God.

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective! I avoided reading your comment until tonight because I wanted to make sure I could actually process your insight.

      The whole faith/works thing always presents an interesting discussion, and it’s only part a larger theology. I know we can’t delve into it too deeply here, though I’m glad you gave a taste of your perspective. I appreciate that you include qualifying words like “normally” and “generally.” Regardless of the exact relationship between faith, works, and salvation, we agree all three are connected. And, of course, you quote James (oh, the discussions that letter brings up!). At risk of over-simplifying things, I see works a little bit like a pulse—if someone’s blood’s not flowing, they’re probably dead. If a Christian isn’t showing their faith by their works, then the nature of their faith is in question. Of course, that pulse metaphor doesn’t sum up the matter, but I think it helps describe part of my understanding.

      Thank you for bringing up John 15. I can’t remember if it crossed my mind as I wrote. If it didn’t, it should have.

      1. I’m happy that I reminded you of John 15, it’s one of my favorite passages in Scripture because of how it shows the merit of perseverance–even if one’s perseverance does not bear obvious fruits. I qualified my argument with “generally” or “normally,” because I imagined that there were a few exceptions to good works being necessary–infant baptism being the most obvious. Catholics believe that saving grace–such as one receives at baptism–imparts the life of God or supernatural charity in the soul. Having supernatural charity suffices for a soul to be saved, but one’s choices affect whether one will continue in sanctifying grace. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “When the race of virtue ends, the race of evil begins.” So, one is required to form virtuous habits or the habit of cooperating with grace; otherwise, one shall become the sort of person who at last refuses the gift of sanctifying grace.

        I’m not sure if performing good works might be compared to a body’s pulse in all cases. Some good works are rather concomitant with our natural disposition. Often, the works accomplished through grace take all our might and main and seem thoroughly unpleasant to our sinful flesh. The works accomplished through grace might be better compared to running a marathon!

        1. (I’m sorry—this comment became longer than I intended…)

          Ah. You mention baptism. I lean toward a Baptist view on that front—for readers who don’t know, that means, among other things, that I do not practice infant baptism, and that I believe water baptism is almost purely an outward sign, a testimony, of grace and identification with Jesus Christ. While it should be done in obedience to God, it’s not a moment when saving grace imparts anything to the soul. Justification by Christ’s righteousness is a one-time deal. When we are saved through faith by grace, we take on his righteousness. We can’t add to or take away from it. By his grace, we continue to grow. He continues to mold us, and we should be doing the good works he has ordained for us as we become more and more like him—in that way, I still believe in sanctifying grace as a a continual internal process… but it’s squarely on the “effect” side of the salvation equation, not the “cause” or even “maintain” side (now I’m starting to get into the complicated explanation with big “-ation” words that I’m still clumsy about using, so I’m going to stop now).

          I’m still a little shaky on whether someone who is truly a Christian, who has put their faith in Christ and accepted his gift, can turn around and refuse it later on, abandoning salvation. Based on my Biblical studies so far, I lean toward “nope,” but I need to study the topic in greater depth.

          Yes, my pulse comparison is a little weak—just a partial description of how I see good works, including those are very difficult. When I say “pulse,” I don’t mean it comes easily, only that it’s an observable sign. Like you said, the marathon comparison fits well! Paul’s words about perseverance and running a race often come to mind when I’m running up a big hill. 🙂

          I enjoy reading what you believe on this front, and it’s given me a chance to put my own beliefs into words and remember what areas I’m most unsure about. Thank you for that. It’s interesting how we can agree on the most important things—God’s sovereignty and righteousness, the Fall, the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, our reliance on him—and be a part of the broader Christian family, even though we disagree on many details. It’s tempting to continue here, but perhaps you have a blog post or another resource you can refer me to. (I admit, I haven’t read as many of your posts as I’d like—school wears me out, and your writing is known to be thought-provoking.) I am surrounded by protestants. Some of my professors try to give a decently rounded, fair representation of the Catholic view, but it’s still filtered, and of course they spend more time nudging us toward what they believe is a correct interpretation.

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